Already the country's deadliest hurricane with an estimated 8,000 deaths, the 1900 storm also would rank as the nation's third costliest, say hurricane scientists who sought to gauge the economic damage that historic storms would have caused if they had occurred in 2005.
Under the new analysis, which adjusted for inflation, population and coastal development, Hurricane Katrina and its $81 billion cost ranked second to the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which caused damage estimated at almost $140 billion. Another Galveston hurricane, in 1915, ranked fourth with $57 billion in damage.
Put simply, the devastation wrought by Katrina in 2005 was not unprecedented.
That's significant in an era when some blame global warming for catastrophic hurricanes. The research concludes that economic damage from hurricanes, after being adjusted, has remained relatively constant during the last century.
Furthermore, scientists involved in the study say, a $500 billion storm in a major metropolitan area along the U.S. coast, such as Miami or possibly even Houston, is conceivable by 2020 if present development trends continue, as expected.
When it comes to hurricanes, these scientists say, coastal development — not warming oceans — should perhaps be policymakers' biggest concern.
"We know what is causing increasing damages, and we know that the increase will continue," said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado climate policy scientist. "The question is whether we want to take action to reduce those future damages. The private sector, insurance and reinsurance are paying close attention to these issues. It is not clear that governments are as well."
Pielke conducted the study with colleagues at the National Hurricane Center, University College London in Britain and several private firms.
Governments should set limits on coastal development and implement rigorous building codes, Pielke said, or prepare for staggering economic losses.
The nation's first building codes were enacted in Miami after the 1926 hurricane. A recent study found that homes built under the newest Florida Building Code better withstood the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons than those constructed earlier.
These codes are stricter than those for Texas, in part, because, until Hurricane Rita, the state had not been struck by a major hurricane in decades. Under Texas law, homes must be built to standards set forth in the International Residential Code, which requires more wind-resistant features in hurricane-prone areas.
Calls from some public officials, such as former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, for stiffer building codes have not gained traction.
There's often less political will to limit coastal development, even in geologically tenuous areas such as barrier islands like Galveston. Leaders there are grappling with a proposal for a 1,058-acre development on the island's West End, a project whose footprint includes geologically unstable areas.
"It's very difficult to find the political will and sustain it long enough to develop new policies for coastal development," said Karen Clark, the founder of AIR Worldwide, a risk modeling company that helps insurers plan for weather catastrophes.
"Economic development always seems to take precedence in policy, and that's OK as long as there are some standards for what is being constructed and those standards are being enforced."
The new hurricane analysis, which will be published in the journal Natural Hazards Review, may also play into the debate over whether the strong storms of the last decade have been fueled by global warming or have simply reflected a natural upswing in activity.
Unlike the overall global warming issue, for which there is generally a scientific consensus, there remains uncertainty about how warming is influencing hurricane activity.
Hugh Willoughby, who directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane research from 1995 to 2002, said there's no evidence of warming affecting hurricanes in the new economic analysis.
"We have heard a lot of crying about doom and gloom from global warming and hurricanes," said Willoughby, now a distinguished professor at Florida International University. "But so far, at least, we're finding that the thing that predicts how much damage will happen is what's built on the beach. There's just no climate signal that shows up in the economic data."
That's because the data are flawed, said Judith Curry, an Earth science researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology and one of the country's leading proponents of the theory that global warming is causing hurricanes to become more intense.
One problem, she says, is the inclusion of economic data from before 1929, the year of the stock market crash. Prior to then, she said, properties were grossly overvalued, and an economic comparison to modern times is not feasible. If the analysis begins in 1929, several major storms, including the 1926 Miami storm and the two major Galveston hurricanes, are removed and the curve could indicate a slightly upward trend.
There's another factor masking a real upward trend in economic damage, she said: the development of building codes, better construction techniques and improvements, such as the large dike now surrounding Lake Okeechobee and the Galveston Seawall, that mitigate storm surge damages.
“The big story should be that changing building codes and putting dikes up does work,'' Curry said. “That's the message, not that there's no evidence of global warming in hurricane activity.''
The authors of the paper, however, say their work does consider building codes. But improvements in building codes, they say, have only been implemented recently, and their enforcement has been far from universal, meaning they have had little effect on their data.
“The Curry critique is flawed,'' said Rade Musulin, an Australia-based actuary and co-author of the new study. “It seems that we have struck a nerve by challenging the notion that global warming is responsible for everything.''